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What you need to know about COVID-19: October 20, 2020
Lost amidst the noise of Justin Trudeau’s business relief package , and the highest one-day increase in reported COVID cases, was a conspicuous exchange in the House of Commons that deserves further comment.
Friday’s question period is generally an exhibition game, sparsely attended and largely ignored by the media.
But the debate in the House of Commons between Michelle Rempel Garner and Patty Hajdu raised questions about the competency of not only the minister but her ministry too.
Rempel Garner, the Conservative health critic, led off question period by asking about the lack of rapid testing at a time when the second wave of COVID-19 threatens to shut down restaurants and other businesses. “We don’t have job-saving rapid tests. Why?” asked Rempel Garner.
The health minister’s first response was to question the credibility of her accuser. Rempel Garner was “presenting false information to the House of Commons” since rapid testing is available in Canada in “rural and remote communities,” said Hajdu.
Rempel Garner wasn’t buying such palpable nonsense. “I would challenge anyone presently watching this in Toronto, and worried about their business closing, to go out right now and try to get a test with results in 15 minutes. That answer was arrogant, deceptive and incompetent,” she said.
Hajdu tacitly conceded as much by abandoning the argument that rapid testing is available. Instead, she advanced the theory that “many jurisdictions that have used rapid tests … have seen a worsening of their outbreaks.”
Rempel Garner appeared unconvinced about the iniquity of a tool that has been employed around the world – one which Health Canada has belatedly come around to, by approving a number of antigen tests.
“Rapid tests keep schools open, rapid tests keep daycares open, rapid tests keep women in the workforce, yet we don’t have those here in Canada. Why has the prime minister failed Canadian women?” Rempel Garner asked.
Hajdu was ready with her rebuttal. “Around the world, there are very high profile examples of how rapid tests have actually added confusion and increased the risk of infection,” she said. “They are not a silver bullet.”
They may not be but it is generally agreed they are essential to economic recovery, not least by David Naylor, the government-appointed co-chair of the COVID Immunity Task-Force, who said with typical understatement that it is “sub-optimal” for Canada to head into the fall without a rapid testing option available.
But if you have been puzzled why Canada has been so slow to purchase and approve rapid tests being used by so many other countries (U.S., UK, Australia, Italy) consider yourself informed: Not only does the health minister not place much value in them, she actively believes they may spread the infection.
Hajdu didn’t provide any evidence to back up that contention.
To be fair, the evidence to the contrary remains inconclusive.
Why is the minister of health still fighting a rear-guard action against their use?
But it is clear they increase the number of tests available and reduce backlogs. India was an early adopter and conducted one million antigen tests a day in the summer. Delhi was one of the first states to adopt rapid tests back in June and by mid-July the number of cases and deaths had plateaued. The introduction of rapid testing is credited with playing a part in controlling the spread of the disease.
Regulators for the Indian tests found them reliable between 51 per cent and 84 per cent of the time, recommending people with a negative result and symptoms to get a more reliable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test. While they are not perfect, antigen tests are effective at detecting the virus in the first week of infection when viral loads are highest. Their use in schools, airports and long-term care homes is widely viewed as beneficial in flagging potential cases more quickly than PCR tests.
The Federal Drug Administration approved credit card sized rapid antigen tests in August but Health Canada waited until earlier this week to give its blessing. The delay means that only 2.5 million tests purchased by the government are likely to be available by the end of the year.
Conservative leader Erin O’Toole pointed out in his reply to the throne speech that the government promised rapid tests six months ago.
So why is the minister of health still fighting a rear-guard action against their use?
It doesn’t require hindsight to see that the benefits of fast-tracking rapid tests outweighed the risks of their introduction. The lights at Health Canada are forever at amber, which is why it required political will to dislodge the bureaucratic won’t. Hajdu failed to offer that leadership.
This minister has not had a good pandemic. She claims to have had no knowledge of the Public Health Agency’s decision to wind down the pandemic surveillance and risk assessment system, in order to redeploy some of the resources to conduct a study on vaping.
But she was culpable for confusion over the closure of borders and on the wearing of masks. She was responsible for repeated flights to her home in Thunder Bay, at a cost of $73,000 to the taxpayer, claiming “pressing constituency business”, while advising others against non-essential travel. And she was guilty of accusing reporters who asked whether data from China could be trusted of “feeding into conspiracy theories”. Instead, she insisted that “very early on China alerted the World Health Organization to the emergence of COVID-19”. They must have loved that in Beijing.
It has likely been an extremely draining six months for the minister, just as it was for former finance minister Bill Morneau. Perhaps it is time the prime minister suggested Hajdu’s talents might be better employed at an international health agency in Geneva or some other place that is not Ottawa.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020